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High-tech fiber arts, loom that weaves ancient with new

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by Simon Hunt

This fall, the Department of Fiber and Material Studies became one of only a few school departments in the world to acquire a digitally-controlled Jacquard loom, a device that allows the user to apply digital imagery and computer-assisted design to weaving.

The Thread Controller TC-1, from Digital Weaving Norway, is a small version of the looms used in industrial textile applications, and was developed for use in schools and personal studios. It produces woven material up to 30 inches wide and as long as the artist chooses.

The loom is more versatile than the traditional floor loom. Woven material is produced on a loom by interlacing two sets of threads. A single “weft” thread is passed in over-and-under patterns through a group of “warp” threads. Instead of controlling warp threads in groups of four, eight or sixteen, as on a traditional loom, the Jacquard loom provides independent control of these threads, which it keeps track of through its attached laptop. The process isn’t entirely left to the computer, though. According to Woven Structures instructor Christy Matson, “It doesn’t weave it for you, that’s still done by hand, but the computer keeps track of complex structures and imagery that you wouldn’t be able to keep track of in your head.”

It wasn’t easy convincing the school to buy a machine that cost almost $40,000. Fiber and Material Studies Department Chair Christine Tarkowsky explained, “We have been requesting the loom every year since 2000, arguing that the digital Jacquard has a great deal of relevance in the contemporary art world.” Professor Anne Wilson said that the department has been pursuing the relationship between fiber art and technology since she began teaching at SAIC in 1979.

The TC-1 seems to cross that border between New Media and weaving/fiber art. According to Christy Matson, “anything that can be made digital can then be woven”—Photoshop files, video stills, sound files, etc.—and a “variety of material possibilities” can be used as weft. In addition to computer control, an air compressor powers a vacuum that pulls the 880 warp ends, and its aluminum frame stands out amidst the rows of wooden hand looms in the weaving room.

Matson will be teaching a new class on the digital Jacquard loom beginning in the spring. The course has no prerequisites, and experience in weaving is not needed, although “there will be a learning curve,” said Matson.

History of the Jacquard loom

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, inventors were fascinated with the idea of mechanization. This helped spawn the Industrial Revolution, as well as the piano and the sweatshop. In Victorian times, inventing something meant adding steam power to things, like bicycles and chairs. Today, new inventions focus on cloning things, making everything wireless and adding MP3 players to existing objects (like shoes or forks).

Many people believe that the original Jacquard loom’s use of punch cards for the storage and input of data influenced the early development of the computer. Charles Babbage himself owned a portrait of Jacquard, which was created on a Jacquard loom, clearly suggesting that the weaver’s work had some effect on his thinking. Of course, punch card and binary technology was in the air in those days, and was used in player pianos, Hollerith’s tabulator, music boxes and other inventions. Punch cards were favored for many years as a form of portable and relatively long-lasting data storage, whose use continued through much of the 20th century in the form of computer programming and employee timekeeping. Even today, we see a few remnants of the technology in frequent buyer coffee cards and some of the more accountable voting machines.

A Brief Timeline

a long time ago weaving is invented almost as long ago the loom

Something like 30,000 B.C.E. sewing is invented

500-1000 C.E. spinning wheels

1725 Basile Bouchon develops hole- punched paper tape to control
patterns on a loom

1726 Jean Falcon, a co-worker of Bouchon’s uses paper cards instead of tape, a HUGE development. Still, the thing didn’t catch on. Instead, people rioted against the displace ment of workers by technology, destroying offending looms.

1733 the Flying Shuttle, by John Kay, used on hand looms to take the weft yarn to the moon (or the other end of the loom)

1785 the Power Loom, by Edmund Cartwright

1801 the Jacquard loom, by Joseph Marie Jaquard, which automated the process of reading the punch cards

1834 Charles Babbage completes drawings for his Analytical Engine, a forerunner to the computer which used punch cards to store and execute formulae.

mid-1800s the Player Piano, by a bunch of people

1887 Herman Hollerith patents the punch card (lucky bastard), and develops a tabulator for tabulating the 1890 U.S. Census. Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company later merged with a few other companies, eventually becoming IBM
early-to-mid 20th century punch cards used in computing for running programs and storing data

1970s punch cards replaced by affordable disk storage

2000 the average American hears way too much about pregnant, dimpled and hanging chads, those annoying parts of the punch card that should have been punched out (in favor of Al Gore), but didn’t quite make it. No automated looms were destroyed in the ensuing riots.

NOVEMBER 2005

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